Developing the right company culture for your small business

November 27, 2012

Corporate culture isn't just for big business. Small business owners should think about their company culture during the start-up phase.

Starting a small business is never easy; however, thanks to the Internet it's more possible than ever before. In this age of innovation, many things are often overlooked that can hinder the growth of a small business even if a small business owner has, as this blog has previously discussed, all the necessary attributes of a successful entrepreneur.

Today guest blogger Julianna Davies looks to tackle another important issue for entrepreneurs and startups:  company culture. You can check out more writing from Davies at

Developing Company Culture is Best Learned Outside of Your MBA Program

“Corporate culture” is a phrase that is thrown around a lot in business circles, but it can be difficult to nail down what it is  exactly. Some call it the overall feel of a workplace; to others, it’s the main goal or shared ethos of the staff. Entrepreneurs and small business owners who are just getting started with new ventures are often tempted to simply gloss over culture, figuring either that it will come about on its own or can be implemented once some of the more pressing business elements are in place. Most experts discourage this approach. Figuring out company culture often takes time and planning at the outset, but can lead to palpable results and greater company cohesion later on down the line.

Startup Culture vs Corporate Culture

Many entrepreneurs are thrown off by looking at the cultures of major corporations. Microsoft and Google are among the international giants who credit their corporate culture for enabling their success. These companies are huge, however, spanning multiple continents and housing hundreds of thousands of employees. Trying to mimic their approaches is often frustrating for a company of only five or six people.

Culture is more about overall mission than precise method, however. The main difference between corporate culture and companyculture is the scale. Ideally, the culture of any organization has been tailored to fit the unique personalities of the executives, as well as the nuanced goals and missions they are working towards.

Most successful entrepreneurs advise newcomers to begin thinking about company culture right away. “Company culture is one of the most important things that determines whether a startup succeeds or fails,” John Ousterhout, an engineering professor at Stanford University, says on his webpage about technology start-ups. Ousterhout advises his students to look for a balance of fun, honesty, and openness when setting out parameters for culture. “The result will be an environment where we have lots of fun, learn and improve, and produce terrific results,” he said.

MBA Caliber Advice About Culture

Actually implementing culture often starts with attitude. Small businesses are notorious for adopting casual dress codes, fostering openness between employees, and embracing a spirit of “fun” that can balance out all the hard work going on. True company culture usually goes a lot deeper, though.

“Here's the truth: company culture is not an isolated project that you throw money and ping-pong tables at; it impacts every single aspect of your business (and every single aspect of your business impacts it),” Leah Busque, founder of TaskRabbit, wrote in an article for the Huffington Post. “It nudges you and your team toward your most creative ideas, keeps you true-to-mission, and focuses your efforts and energy,” Busque said. “Culture is the healthy diet and exercise that keeps your company in tip-top shape—it's preventative care no business can afford to take lightly.”

One of the assets of working in a small business is that adjusting company culture is fairly easy if things seem to be going off-track. While corporate culture has a tendency to permeate departments and divisions and can be very difficult to change, company culture can often be reoriented with a few key team meetings and a lot of hard work from executives.

“Look for a symbol, story, ritual or other tool you could use to bring out the values and practices you want for your company,” Entrepreneur magazine recommends. “Your cultural tool might be a new logo symbolizing your company's personality. Or you could choose a story to embody your approach and make it part of your culture.” When everyone is oriented in the same direction, things will start to happen more smoothly, and the working environment often improves for everyone.

The sooner entrepreneurs and small business owners get a grasp on company culture the better. It is usually best to start small, focusing on the needs of the anticipated organization rather than visions and ideals that might work better in a larger corporation. The goal is simply to get everyone on the same page, and working towards shared goals. From there, success and seamless business operations often flow naturally.